By the time she was 18, Cheryl Fike had moved nine times because of her father's job. For Fike, every move was sad, distressing and alienating.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, not again,’ when they’d tell me we had to move,” says Fike, a 52-year old engineer from Galt, Calif. “I was shy and reserved so it was hard for me to make friends. I mostly spent time with my horse and each time I’d worry that we were going to move somewhere where I couldn’t keep her. It made me totally depressed. I think those moves are part of the reason I have panic attacks now.”
Psychologists have known for years that moves can be distressing for kids. But a new study shows that the impact on some adolescents may be far more devastating than anyone thought. The study, published in the Archives of Psychiatry, found that kids aged 11 to 17 were twice as likely to attempt suicide if their families moved three or more times compared to those who had never moved.
And, if the family moved more than 10 times, the children were four times as likely to attempt suicide compared to those who had never moved.
For the new study, researchers looked at data from 4,160 Danish children who were brought to hospitals after attempting suicide, as well as 79 who had succeeded in their suicide attempts. These children, all between the ages of 11 and 17, were compared to 124,800 adolescents who had not made suicide attempts.
“Adolescence is an inherently turbulent time for children, and moves may be more traumatic in some cases,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Ping Qin, an associate professor at the National Centre for Register-based Research at the University of Aarhus in Aarhus, Denmark. “Change of residence often results in a breakdown of connections with peers and it introduces distress and worries related to the new environment.”
Making matters worse, parents can be so caught up in the process of moving that they don’t notice what a big impact it’s having on their kids. “So the children may feel ignored and have no friends around to communicate with,” Qin says.
More families moving due to economy
These days, more families are being forced to move because of the troubled economy, says Dr. Alan Manevitz, a psychiatrist who specializes in family issues at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
And parents need to be extra vigilant about their children’s mental state during a move, Manevitz says. “You need to keep an eye out for signs of depression — or any behavioral changes,” he adds. “Comments about death or dying should never be taken casually.”
While many kids respond to new places just fine, "you need to recognize that a move can cause stress and your kids may have a limited ability to adjust," Manevitz says. “Don’t let them pout or isolate. Encourage them to stay in contact with their old friends through e-mail and video conferencing. Have them invite their old friends to visit the new place.”
Because they see moving as necessary, parents sometimes can fail to see how significant a move can be in a child’s life, says Patrick Tolan, a professor of psychology and director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Parents can lessen the impact if they include the child in discussions of the anticipated move and give them an opportunity to see the new house and neighborhood before moving, he adds.
Qin suggests that parents and teachers pay close attention to kids in the early days after a move. “They should be alert for the warning signs of unhappiness and distress that can lead to suicidal behavior,” she says.
When Cheryl Fike had to move with her own daughter several times, she remembered how bad relocating made her feel as a child.
“I made sure that she was always in the same school district, even if that meant I had to drive an hour each way to get her to school,” Fike says. “I wanted to make sure she had a solid base. And I think that paid off. She eventually went to Yale on a full scholarship and she’s traveled all around the world.”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.